Sixty years on, young Palestinians face a new struggle: to embrace the future without forgetting the past.
The memory generation
Their lives have been shaped by a conflict they were not a part of and a state that does not exist. Their identities are fixed in the memory of a home they have never seen. They are the third generation of Palestinian refugees, reaching the age of 30 as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians rages on, 60 years after the establishment of Israel. Some 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes between 1947 and 1949; today they and their descendants number more than four million.
Some went to Syria, others to Jordan. The unlucky ended up in Lebanon's desperate camps, while others left to build new lives in Europe, North America, or the Gulf. Wherever they settled, all the refugees passed on stories of their homes, and their suffering, to their children and grandchildren. About 200,000 Palestinians live in the UAE. One of the descendants of the 1948 generation is Ahmad Ayoub; his parents were born in a camp in Lebanon, but he was born and raised in Abu Dhabi.
When Ayoub, 23, calls to arrange our meeting I suggest Starbucks, but he dismisses the idea. "I hate Starbucks, I won't drink it. Let's go somewhere else." Instead he wants to meet at the Ohio Cafe, a trendy hangout near the Corniche. At the agreed time, Ahmad pulls up in a matte black Nissan 350Z which his friends call the Batmobile; in the passenger seat is his friend Jude Kuzli, a pretty girl with thick curly hair that emphasises her slender figure.
Ayoub's grandparents fled Ras al Ahmar, a village in northern Palestine that is now part of Israel, in May 1948. He has never been there and neither have his parents, but he refers to it as "our village". "It is on the Lebanese border. If you stand on the hill in the camp you can see our village," he explains. Many of his relatives are still living in Ein el Hilwah, now the largest refugee camp in Lebanon.
Ayoub, who works for an oil company, is thoughtful and articulate, his confidence nurtured by a private education and years spent studying in Canada. When you ask him where he's from he says, "Palestine, then Lebanon." But that's the short answer; the complicated one is that he carries a Lebanese travel document for Palestinian refugees. "When I visited Maine I said I was born in the UAE but was not a national and they wouldn't accept it. How can you be born somewhere and not be a citizen? But deep inside I feel Emirati because this is where I was born and raised, even if I don't have a passport."
The Palestinians in the Gulf are unique in the diaspora because the ruling Sheikhs did not accept refugees. They needed Arabs with the expertise to work in the civil service, teach in the schools, and work in the hospitals. In the Palestinians they found an educated and hard-working population keen to exchange their skills for a chance to better themselves and escape life in bleak camps hosted by countries that saw them as a temporary problem. Only a few received UAE passports, but many have managed to send their children to private schools and send money to less fortunate relatives in the camps. For most Palestinian children in the Emirates, life is similar to that enjoyed by nationals - new cars, nice clothes and family holidays.
Ayoub's father received an education in Ein el Hilwah, and he moved to Abu Dhabi in the 1970s to work as a human resources manager at Adnoc, following his brother, who worked as an accountant there. "It was safe in the Emirates and it was a promising place," Ayoub says. "But life for my father was hard. When I argue with him today he says, 'It's good you argue, when I was in the camp there was no time to argue.'"
His early memories were of his grandparents and older relatives talking about Palestine. "My grandpa's brother keeps talking about his land: how nice it was, cattle, olives and his wife. Life wasn't complicated. He has a disease, I'm not sure what it is, dementia maybe, I don't know. But he only remembers the early part of his life. He can't remember the present, just the past." Despite his desire for an Emirati passport, Ayoub describes Palestine as his "motherland".
But is it home? "I've never been there. I don't know how it feels. My dad hasn't been there. The annoying part is the more educated you get the more it doesn't make sense." He considers Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed his leader, not the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Even if he could return, Ahmad is unsure about the idea. "When I think of Palestine I don't think of going. What am I going to do if I go back? What would I do? I think instead of the misery of the people."
He says his uncle has the key to their house and all the documents that prove the land belongs to them are with relatives in Lebanon. "But at the end of the day it is not a piece of paper that makes you belong. It's your blood," he says. "The occupation thinks the third generation will forget. With each child that dies we remember. We will never forget." To be a third generation refugee is to remember only memories: the Arab name of the family's village; how many dunams of land were left; a Palestinian proverb or two. In their view, to forget is to betray and to accept that they will never return.
As Khairi Aloridi, the Palestinian ambassador to the UAE, put it, every Palestinian is a "political entity". "This is what is inherited by the third generation, this history. They will feel this inheritance for a long time." When speaking to young Palestinians in the Emirates, the sense of burden of history becomes clear, as if there is a duty to remember what happened to their families. Ayoub says he contributes to the cause by being educated and successful. "I'm not involved in political and cultural organisations. When I was in school during the second intifada we walked on the Corniche. I don't believe this is how you express your support for Palestine because it only adds noise pollution."
Several observers I spoke to said the young Palestinians in the Emirates were not involved in politics but that some showed their support for the cause by donating money, getting involved in fundraising events or helping provide humanitarian relief. As one analyst suggested, "they are like the kids in the US, living in a financially-driven society." One banker, whose father was a leading guerrilla fighter, agreed to talk about his views on the Nakba, but admitted he did not keep up with Palestinian politics. "I was never interested in the political situation," he told me, "I was interested in the situation as human beings."
Another banker, Kareem al Ghussein, 24, said he would mark the anniversary by "getting up and going to work". "I didn't know it was the 60th anniversary until you told me," he admitted over lunch at a restaurant near his office. Ghussein, who was born in Kuwait, says "We lived Palestine through the news, TV." Ghussein comes from a family of land owners in Gaza. His uncle was treasurer of the PLO, and started a contracting company here that built water pipelines, military camps, hospitals and a national library. Ghussein's family were among the early nation builders of the Gulf states.
Ghussein said his Palestinian identity was expressed through language. "I make an effort to hang on to my Palestinian dialect. Or through proverbs we use. I learnt it from my parents. We also identify among each other by the dialects we speak. "It's more about being an al Ghussein," he said. "It's highly correlated. We identify ourselves through our family names." Ghussein said that Palestinians in the Gulf also define themselves through their success as immigrants. "We Palestinians are hard working, very intelligent, highly educated," he said. "No matter what social class we come from. We are successful in any environment. I've been here and in Canada and we can adapt to any environment because we've been thrown out of our natural environment."
Ayoub said he had many Palestinian friends but none were really involved in politics; he muses that it could be because the peace process is stalled. "You can't be politically active here anyway," he says. "In the past few years nothing has happened. I mean, look at Iraq. Someone is killed and after some time it fades. Life is becoming hard here. People are worried about compromising their lives here. They are busy working."
But it may be unfair to single out Palestinians in the Emirates for their lack of political interest. Sufian Mushasha of the Sharek Youth Forum, an NGO with several offices in the Palestinian territories, commissioned a poll of 1,600 young people in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip on the eve of the 60th anniversary. The results were depressing. If older Palestinians fighting for statehood were a highly politicised generation, secular and nationalist in their outlook, then it would appear this generation is very different. Fifty-four per cent of those polled reported they don't participate in politics at all, while 70 per cent believe political parties are only useful as a means of securing employment. Thirty-three per cent of respondents desire a restoration of the Caliphate, and believed Palestinians would have a state if it was God's will.
Mushasha said the youth in the camps of Lebanon had similar views. "You cannot imagine how idealistic their idea of Palestine is," he says. "They have a beautiful image communicated by their mothers and fathers. I could not tell them about the reality." "We have an expression: those who are getting a beating are not those who are counting the beatings. It means we are under pressure. Those outside are reminiscing."
Ayoub, whose extended family is still in Ein el Hilwah, said his cousins had grown up with a very different reality. "I used to go visit Ein el Hilwah," he says. "But it's hectic. There is no electricity and I can't live without air conditioning. You should go there. I'll put you in touch with my uncle Walid and all the cousins." But getting inside Ein el Hilwah is not easy. It is the largest refugee camp in the country and 45km south of Beirut near the town of Saida. There are two check points; the first and heavily armed one is controlled by the Lebanese army and the second by the PLO. The refugees are not allowed to leave without permission from the authorities and visitors cannot enter without clearance from Lebanese intelligence, who are worried that violent jihadists returning from Iraq will gain a foothold in the sprawling, densely packed camp.
They may have good reason to worry: last year another Palestinian camp in the north, Nahr el-Bared, was taken over by jihadists who waged a three month battle with the army before the Lebanese took control. The colonel in charge of the military intelligence office in Saida, a mile down the road from Ein el Hilwah, gives us a small piece of paper with the number 120 written on it. We are to give it to the officer in charge of the checkpoint which is in the middle of a busy street flanked by busy shops and high buildings. Dozens of cars, taxis and minibuses move slowly in the queue and enter the camp on the main road, which residents call Martyrs of Fallujah.
Everywhere there are Palestinian flags and posters of Yasser Arafat, including one picture of him with Saddam Hussein. A man in civilian clothes, flanked by two others armed with Kalashnikovs, introduces himself as our escort. He is here for our "protection," but another young man with a camera will also follow us and photograph everyone we interview. The men are from the PLO. When Ayoub's cousin, Walid Abdul Ghani, 39, arrives at the entrance a few minutes later, he remains unfazed by the armed guards. "It's no problem," he says. "Come, I will take you to our home."
"We are one of the biggest families in the camp - there are about 150 of us," he explains, walking through the main road. "I was born here and work repairing and selling cars. All our life is right here, we never leave." Ein el Hilwah was established by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1948 for refugees fleeing northern Palestine. They were given tents at first, but over the years the tents became zinc roofs, which became concrete buildings as the decades dragged on.
During the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990 the camp came under constant attack and many refugees died. The refugees work as day labourers, taxi drivers, in the orchards, as cleaners or embroiderers. They are prohibited by law to work in 20 trades (it was 70 until 2005), they have neither civil rights nor access to public social services. The majority rely on the UN for basic education and health. They cannot work outside the camp, and they are not allowed to own cars or motorbikes.
The Lebanese government has been reluctant to give them full rights in part because the addition of 100,000 Muslims in 1948 — since grown to 419,000 — would tip the country's precarious sectarian balance. According to Amnesty International, Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty. The population of the camp has grown, from 16,000 in 1948 to 60,000 today, but the acreage allocated to the camp has remained almost the same; families have built higher and higher, most of the rooms have no sunlight and the alleyways are dark and narrow.
The camp has a semi-permanent look to it. Every nook and cranny is jammed with a house or a shop. Walid walks through a rabbit warren of grey concrete streets so narrow everyone has to walk single file. At a small shop with three large bowls of olives and vine leaves sitting on the windowsill he turns right. An empty plastic bottle covers a light bulb; above it, electrical wires are held together with a plastic tie.
"Last week there was an electrical fire. But the firefighters couldn't put it out because the street is too narrow. So neighbours had to help them," Walid says. At a house with nothing on the outside to identify it, an older woman in a green dress opens the door. It is Ahmad Ayoub's grandmother; she ushers us inside and the two armed guards station themselves outside the living room door. "It was here on this spot that we put up a tent and I got married. I was 13," she says. She walked for three days from their village, 30km south of the Lebanese border. "I thought we'd be here for a week and we are 60 years displaced. You see this house? I would leave it all tomorrow morning. I left our village on foot and I would return on foot."
Walid wants to give a tour of the house. It has five bedrooms, and 13 sisters and seven brothers grew up here. In the hallway is a door leading to his sister's flat. The house has sofas, mirrors, chairs and carpets. The floors have clean tiles and there are photographs on the walls. "Don't think all the houses are like this. It is furnished because we have family outside. Others can't do this." In the living room, their grandmother is singing, "Palestine why are you sad? The Lebanese army is coming..."
Walid says the week before, an uncle died. In his will he stated that he wants to be buried in Palestine when they return. "I tell my children everything," Walid says. "About how they kicked out our family, everything. I always hope we go back. The dead want to go back." Their grandmother is getting ready to prepare lunch in the windowless kitchen. "We used to play in our fields," she says. "We planted lemons, apricots, almonds. We had vegetables, cucumbers, tomatoes, fields. We had fields."
Walid's mobile phone rings and it is Yousif Abdul Ghani, another of Ayoub's cousins. Leaving the house, Walid walks up a wide street leading to a PLO building on a hill lined with bright orange lantanas. Yousif, 20, is sitting with his father Hussein under a canopy of fig and jasmine flowers. Yousif has blue eyes and curly hair tucked under a baseball cap. He was born in this camp and has left it only a handful of times in his life.
The PLO armed guards linger and listen. And Yousif looks wary. Hussein, a smiley and wizened old man, is the gardener here. He has planted pink and red roses, white gardinias and fig trees. The jasmine gives a feminine and cheery air to the entrance, despite the posters of guns and armed men that cover it. "I couldn't finish school because we had no money," Yousif says. "It's really hard for young people here. The last time I went outside was a year ago. My friend invited me to a barbecue lunch near Beirut. We prepared tabbouleh. But I didn't swim because I don't know how. I felt like I was in Europe. Here it is miserable." Yousif says he fixes air conditioning units for a living.
How long do you think you'll be here? I ask him. He shrugs. "I don't know. A long time. For fun we have narghile. We have no cafes, nothing. No restaurants." His father Hussein adds: "Well, sometimes we do buy a dish of foul and hummus to bring home." Yousif smiles and looks embarrassed. What does Palestine mean if you have never been there? Yousif looks unsure. "I raise my head when I say I am Palestinian. We will never feel comfortable until we return to our state. My grandfather used to tell me about Palestine. About all the land. All the vegetables. Everything would be better if we went back."
But how do you know it would be better? His brow furrows. "It just would. If I get back to Palestine things will get better. It's better to be buried there too. Here I don't have enough money even to get married." As we walk back down the hill a grey taxi slows down to chat with Walid. "This is my brother," Walid says. "He has the key to the house in Palestine." His brother waves. "It's in a safe place," the brother assures us.
A car honks behind him and he drives away. Back at the house, the electricity is off. "We only get it for six hours a day," Walid says. Other relatives have arrived, and they are discussing how they will mark the 60th anniversary on 14 May. "We will turn the lights off and sleep," says Mohammed Rashid Abdul Ghani, 78. "It's a dark day for us." He continues: "There are UN resolutions - why am I still here? What are resolutions for? We don't want to stay here. What did the Arabs do for us? They conspire against us."
His family hushes him and they laugh a bit nervously, glancing at the armed PLO men. He looks irritated. "Who cares? It's been 60 years but it's been lies, lies." The grandmother drags us away for lunch in the small kitchen. She peels the white flesh of the fried fish from the spine and bones and puts it in a small bowl. There are four framed photographs of Hassan Nasrallah on the book shelf, above the TV, on the walls.
"If all Arab leaders were like him we'd hold our head up high," she says. Mohammed, 20, another cousin, says the third generation has an identity crisis. "You are from Lebanon, but you are not. You say you are Palestinian but you don't know anything about it. It's hard for us. A lot of parents in the States tell their kids to forget - that they can do a lot better in life if they don't know the history, but that's not right."
What is Palestine to you? He does not hesitate. "Home. As long as you know you are Palestinian you know who you are. You should have pride in your nationality because it was taken away from you." His cousin Samir Yousif, 20, nods. Would you leave? He looks around to his family. "Where should I leave to? I prefer to immigrate to Palestine. Palestine is the Prophet's land. It's our ancestors' land."
His great-uncle looks on approvingly. "All the Prophets are from there." Mohammed added: "My grandparents described the land so well, I know how far the house is from the school in the village. I know where the olive trees were planted." Walid brings out a pale green folder with yellowing documents in clear plastic sleeves from the 1940s to show they paid taxes on the land. Walid sifts carefully through the papers. "This is what proves Palestine to us."
In the wealthy Gulf countries the young diaspora is confident and successful, loyal to the idea of Palestine but with their eyes fixed on the future. In the refugee camps where there is little hope of work or a decent education, Palestine is nirvana, a solution to their suffering. Turning the pages I remembered Mushasha saying that among the young generation in the camps across the Middle East, there was pride in the violence they were suffering.
"They see Israelis kill 26 in Gaza and believe when we lose 26 in Gaza the vibrant resistance is alive," Mushasha told me. "They think, despite everything, Gazans are fighting. They have their reality, and it's also to keep Palestine alive in the minds of the diaspora. Even if they wanted to wanted to come they could not. So they might as well keep alive the cause and remind Arab countries to keep the issue alive. Because we are hanging by a straw."